Working on yourself, part 4: The one-man band

In my recent posts I introduced the concept of working on yourself in order to dissipate your fears and fulfill your talents, and I suggested that the attitude you bring to the task determines whether you’re in fact working on yourself or just floundering, skating, coasting, retreating, or otherwise going backward rather than forward. Then I proposed that you build a team to help you work on yourself, and I finished my last post with a riddle: Who's the most important member of a one-man band?

A one-man band traditionally is a musician who plays several instruments at the same time, often accompanying himself while singing. The archetypical one-man band is a guy playing the guitar, with a harmonica affixed to his head and ready for hands-off playing, and a tambourine tied to his leg.

In the one-man band, the most important member is the man—that is, the guy at the center of the whole enterprise. The guitar, the harmonica, the tambourine, and anything else that comprises the band are all secondary.

The members of my team are like the guitar, the harmonica, and the tambourine of a one-man band. They each make a different kind of music, with their own individual voices. But without my own efforts at unifying their voices into a harmonious whole, we might as well call the whole concert off.

There are risks and dangers in every situation, and working on yourself with the help of a team is no exception, however competent and helpful your team members may be. I see two main risks in working with a team. There’s a scene in “Casablanca” that bugs the heck out of me every time I watch it. Ingrid Bergman, who plays Ilsa, cuddles with Humphrey Bogart, who plays Rick. She’s freaking out about their adulterous relationship and the war in the background.

Oh, I don’t know what’s right any longer.
You’ll have to think for both of us, for all of us.

All right, I will.

That’s perverted! That’s morally wrong! That’s just plain ugly! The thing in this life is to think for yourself, to make your own choices, and to live with the consequences of your choices. That’s the very definition of freedom. In a tyranny—like the very Nazism of which Ilsa is a victim—other people think for you, make decisions for you, impose their decisions on you. Ilsa’s pleading for Rick to think for her is a submission to tyranny. And Rick’s accepting to do it is, shall we say, counterproductive. It infantilizes Ilsa, makes her handicapped and dependent. It’s no solution to the problem. It is the problem!

It’s the same thing when you work on yourself with the help of a team. You risk being tempted to let other people “think for you.” You risk falling under the spell of someone who appears superior to you in some way, and this simply serves to make you inferior. It doesn't matter how brilliant your team members may be: In the end, you gotta think for yourself and make your own decisions.

The second main risk in working with a team is dispersion, or the contrary of integration. We all have many aspects to our personalities, many talents and possibilities lying within. To develop these talents is one thing; to have all talents collaborate to make you whole is another thing. If the team is working to make you whole, that’s great. But if the team is pulling you apart—or, more precisely, if you’re letting the team pull you apart—then you need to rethink your strategies. Fire the guitar player, chuck the harmonica, dump the tambourine, and sing a cappella, naked and all alone in the world. In other words, quit the one-man band and become a “one-man.”